By Catherine Raine
I spent the past six years teaching English at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), a non-profit organization in Toronto that assists survivors and helps them integrate into Canadian society. Although I may never be able to understand the depth and scope of the pain my students have experienced, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about their coping methods.
Whether they responded with emotional numbness or extreme sensitivity to others’ suffering, I believe my students both inhabited and transcended the limiting label of “victim.” Two-dimensional saints they are not. Yet the courage of CCVT clients shines in their willingness to start again in Canada and find a new voice in a new language.
One misconception that I overcame was the expectation that survivors of torture will always say nice things. Previously, I believed that intense suffering had somehow made them more than human, magically transforming them into pious models of compassion and political correctness. That’s why I was shocked when a student once joked about the actor Christopher Reeve’s paralysis. “Superman used to fly but now he’s stuck in a wheelchair.” A few of the learners laughed at the comment, but the rest of us just gaped in horror.
The same student also became irritated with me during a class discussion of Princess Diana’s biography. When I said it was sad that she died so young, the student replied matter-of-factly, “That’s life, teacher. Children die all the time, and who is feeling sad for them?”
Maybe the learner didn’t like precious sympathy being wasted on rich women who romped on yachts with playboys. More disturbingly, another client started laughing when she told a story about two men in her building beating each other up in a lovers quarrel. A classmate said, “Teacher, she’s laughing about somebody getting hurt?” I agreed that it wasn’t at all funny, just as it wasn’t funny when a different student expressed anger at Inuit seal-hunts with the words “Let them eat snow! Why can’t they find a job in the city like everybody else?”
Was torture responsible for these apparent lapses in compassion? If so, I think the most tragic effect of brutalization is a lost capacity to feel for other victims, especially when they seem different in regard to disability, wealth, sexual orientation, or culture.
If trauma has cost some students their willingness to acknowledge others’ tragedies and hurts, then that’s the biggest loss of all; here, the inhumanity of torture has damaged some victims’ own humanity to such a degree that they no longer know what is funny and what is sad. From this perspective, I can see how empathy could become a luxury and hurtful laughter a way to mask overwhelming sadness and fear.
It’s emotionally costly to invest in the suffering that’s available for our consumption in the media. Insensitivity, distance, and emotional numbness are safer than facing the pain lurking in the body’s memory, locked into every thought. I can understand why it might have been difficult for some of my students to “waste” emotion on Christopher Reeve, Princess Diana, a gay neighbor, or the Inuit. However, a large part of the rehabilitative work that happens at CCVT involves encouraging the clients to see that they’re not beyond the circle of human compassion, even if it must have felt that way when no Superman rescued them at their darkest hour, no Princess came to hold their hand and tell them everything would be OK.
At the opposite extreme of emotional withdrawal from pain is over-identification with accounts of suffering. One morning in class, I read aloud a few paragraphs about Terry Fox, who lost a leg to cancer and became famous in the 1980s for attempting to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. To my surprise, one of the students started sobbing loudly when I reached the end of the passage. The rest of the class looked extremely uncomfortable, and I felt terrible. I had hoped Fox’s story would be inspirational. On the contrary, it was just too unbearably sad for the crying student to read of a spirited young man who lost a leg and then his life to cancer. I wasn’t sure what to do. I stopped reading, patted the upset learner on the shoulder, and gave the class their journals. I had planned to show a TV movie about Terry Fox after the break, but I changed my mind because I was worried about the effect it might have on the student who cried. We watched You’ve Got Mail instead.
Another student cried when we read a news article about an American woman whose son died while serving in Iraq and who later protested for peace in Washington on Mother’s Day. I have learned to limit our newspaper readings because many students seemed inclined to choose to read articles about murder and violence.
Between the extremes of avoidance and overexposure to the morbid lies the more ordinary subjects we cover, for our class was about much more than coping with tragic stories. We also speculated on the love life of Prince Charles and Camilla, discussed the different ways to ask if it’s break-time, shared cake at birthday celebrations, read short plays, and teased each other about owning imaginary helicopters and limousines.
Outside the classroom, we explored Toronto together. On a trip to the Toronto Reference Library, the students immediately plunked themselves down at the wooden tables and started to read books in Swahili, Tamil, Tigrinya, Somali, English, Amharic, Spanish, Arabic, and Albanian. I sat down with my ESL books and joined the scholarly communion; it felt peaceful and happy to be reading silently together in the middle of our noisy city.
On less scholarly outings, we swung on beachside swings and enjoyed picnics at the Toronto Islands. The very ordinariness of these activities—finding the right subway platform, examining a painting together, sharing coffee and donuts—seemed to ease the burden of extraordinary suffering under which my students staggered. Being an ordinary day-tripper transcends being a Victim of Torture; he or she is a student, a tourist, a classmate, a friend, a provider of bread and sweets, a host who insists on buying the teacher’s coffee.
It was my job to be a gentle witness to both the dreams and the tragic experiences of my students. If the pain was never far from the surface, neither was the beauty. Beauty was definitely present at a party we threw in May, when we danced on the Centre’s backyard patio. As the sun warmed the tops of our heads, the group of dancers grew larger and the joy became more contagious.
Looking at the smiling women playfully shaking their shoulders, it was hard to understand why anybody would have ever wanted to hurt them. Their joyous dance was fierce evidence that whoever tortured them did not win, did not extinguish their spirit.
Catherine Raine is a Toronto-based teacher, blogger, and artist. She currently teaches academic writing for ESL students at Centennial College.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Thomas Favre-Bulle.